DS: This DSI is with historian Dr. Peniel
Joseph. Thanks for agreeing to be interviewed. He has edited the book The
Black Power Movement: Rethinking The Civil Rights And Black Power Era and written Waiting
’Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History Of Black Power In America.
He has also been a regular commentator on things historic on assorted PBS
programs, especially playing a prominent role commenting on the 2008
Presidential election. I want to delve into his opinions on a plenum of
subjects- from not just the historic, but the political and philosophic. For
those readers to whom your book and your name are unfamiliar, could you please
give a précis on who Peniel Joseph is: what you do, what your aims in your
career are, major achievements, and your general philosophy, etc.?
PJ: Wow, that is a really comprehensive question. I am a
native New Yorker, born in the city, lived for a couple of years in Brooklyn and
was raised in Jamaica, Queens by a single mother, Germaine Joseph, a Haitian
immigrant who was a hospital worker, union member (1199), and my first
and best history teacher/professor. I grew up in a household where
politics and history and reading mattered. Coming of age in New York City during
the 1980s was an amazing experience both culturally and politically. There was a
resurgence in an appreciation for black history due in part to the explosive
rise of Hip Hop and the election of the city’s first black mayor, David N.
Dinkins. Race relations in the city remained fraught with incidents such as
Howard Beach, where a young black man was chased by whites and killed, sparking
outrage and political unity at the grassroots level that would be seen in movies
such as Spike Lee’s “Do The Right Thing” in 1989 and music by Public
Enemy. So my personal experience dovetailed into the era’s unfolding political
drama and I became determined to be a historian, writer, teacher, activist, and
scholar. Watching the documentary series “Eyes on The Prize” during the
1980s proved to be a watershed experience and introduced me to the study of
figures such as Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Stokely Carmichael, and
Martin Luther King Jr. In terms of a general philosophy, studying the lives of
such individuals made me believe in the best that American democracy had to
offer. The lives of black women and men who literally bled for American
democracy and citizenship proved to be an overwhelming experience for me, one
that still touches me deeply to my core.
DS: People who see your photo will find something of a
logical and emotional disconnect between their assumptions of what a historian
looks like and what you are. When people think of historians, they think of old
white folk, especially men, like a David McCullough. Yet, aside from not being
white, you look like you could still be an undergraduate yourself. Does your
visage ever throw people off, such as if you are in some sort of debate, and
your opponents may underestimate you because of perceived callowness? Who were
some historians you read that excited you with their work, styles, ideas?
PJ: Well I think that my youthful appearance does at times
throw people off. As does my energy and enthusiasm for the study of history and
politics and social movements in general. At the same time it provides an entrée
in reaching young people who may be put off by the study of history.
The historians who excited me vary, ranging from W.E.B. Dubois’
towering works on race, democracy, and the color line during the twentieth
century to C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins, Carter Woodson’s, The
Mis-Education of the Negro, to Lerone Bennett Jr., Manning Marable, Nell
Painter, David Levering Lewis, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and Darlene Clark
Hine. The work of Robin D.G. Kelley proved to be indispensible. Kelley’s work
on black radicalism, the labor movement, civil rights, and Hip Hop opened up new
intellectual doors. The accessible writing style of
Marable, Kelley, Taylor Branch, David Garrow, Vincent Harding, and
Clayborne Carson has also been very
DS: I mentioned the titles of two of your books, and
your job title is Professor of History at Tufts
University. Most people, black, white, or other, will assume that you are only
concerned with the history of black people, to the exclusion of others. In white
America, this often leads many white people to assume that you may be practicing
Politically Correct or Multicultural studies to the exclusion of ‘Dead White
Men,’ in the least, and in the worst, perhaps practicing the pseudo-history
and pseudo-science nonsense propounded by Nation Of Islam founder Elijah
Muhammad. What exactly is it that you study and teach? And, how does it relate
to the overall larger narrative of human history- beyond the racial boundaries
of America? Are you interested in paleontology’s role in history? Do you find
things in your specific area of expertise that has analogues to, say, the
eastward expansion of Polynesians across the Pacific and into South America, the
ancient kingdoms of Indochina, the implications of Kennewick Man on the role of
Native American ancestry in the New World, or the displacement of Neandertals by
modern European forebears?
PJ: Broadly speaking I study the role
of race in shaping the evolution of American democracy both domestically and
internationally. That is to say African American history has indelibly shaped
the history of liberalism, the Constitution, democracy, race relations, World
Wars, the Cold War, and postwar history. It relates to a wider narrative of
human history in the sense that the black experience remains a portal for a wide
variety of racial and ethnic groups fighting for social, political, cultural,
and economic equality at the local, national, and global level. In terms of my
field of study, I would say what is most analogous to fields of ancient history
is the global reverberations of the social movements that I read, write, and
DS: What do you define cultural
memory as- national, religious, racial, etc.?
PJ: Well I believe it is, in fact, all of these things.
Cultural memory tends to be seen through discrete prisms, whether racial,
national, or religious and can vary depending on local geography and historical
time and place. The way in which American society views the era of Jim Crow or
the Civil War and Reconstruction still varies widely depending on where one
looks and who one asks.
DS: To what extent do factors like path dependence,
contingency, causality, and the random effect of small acts on history- aka the
Butterfly Effect, have on history?
PJ: I think that these have a considerable impact on
history. All of the historical events we study are contingent in the sense that
the outcomes as we know them were never pre-determined so its important to pay
close attention to small historical factors that loom large in the big history
or grand narratives that historical love to write about.
DS: I’ll return to more detailed
queries on history later, but before we get too far afield, let me start at the
beginning, your beginning, and probe who you are and why readers will find your
ideas and career interesting. Are you married? Is your wife a
historian, a lawyer, a professor, an artist? And how did you meet?
PJ: I am not married, although my personal partners have
tended to be women who find history interesting.
DS: Looking at your c.v., one can divine you were born
in the early to mid-1970s. That means you are an early Generation Xer, so to
speak. You were born after the Civil Rights Movement, but where were you born,
and to what extent did a black kid of your generation benefit from the earlier
struggles with racism in America? Especially since you were born to immigrants,
correct? Was your family upwardly mobile? Did you grow up in a relatively
PJ: I like to call my generation “Black Power Babies,” meaning we were born between 1966-1975 a period that I refer to in my own scholarship as the Black Power Movement’s “classical era.” We benefited tremendously from earlier struggles for civil rights and Black Power and in fact my generations was very self-consciously attempting to recreate aspects of the 1960s era political activism in our own lives. A prime example is the campus radicalism of my youth in the late 1980s and early 1990s when students rallied against apartheid in South Africa. The Hip Hop groups of what is now popularly known as a golden era in Hip Hop tended toward black consciousness, especially on the East Coast. Groups such as Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, X-Clan, Jungle Brothers, A Tribe Called Quest, Brand Nubian, Intelligent Hoodlum, and others explicitly and implicitly looked to the Black Power era for a sense of political direction and cultural identification. My family was working-class as was the neighborhood that I lived in, which was also probably 99 per cent black.
DS: I also grew up in Queens, in the western nabes of
Ridgewood and Glendale, whereas you grew up in Queens Village, to the east. I
lived in Ridgewood till the age of 9, but often my friends and I played over in
Bushwick, across the Brooklyn border, with black kids. That nabe was seen in
Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing.
There were many burnt out buildings, heroin galleries, etc. (in the late
1960s and early 1970s), and I got a good education in juvenile and low level
criminal activity. The thing folks outside of New York don’t understand is
that New York was integrated but segregated, in that there would nabes where
blacks, Poles, Italians, Irish, Puerto Ricans, etc. lived, and they would be
right next to each other, with invisible boundary lines, mostly enforced by real
estate redlining and natal prejudices. What was Queens Village like, racially
and in terms of crime?
PJ: Racially Queen was very segregated. My area was
overwhelmingly black. Whites lived in places like Fresh Meadows, Flushing, and
Nassau and Suffolk Counties. In terms of crime both the perpetrators and victims
tended to be black.
DS: While there were ‘racial incidents’ (usually
whites attacking blacks that ventured into ‘wrong areas’), most bigots I
knew were not hood wearing White Supremacists, merely people who were ‘taught
wrongly,’ and would not have wanted their child marrying a black person. As
example, I recently found out about the death of a supermarket grocery manager I
used to work for, a quarter century ago. He was a good, honest, hard working
blue collar guy who treated all employees well and fairly (regardless of
ethnicity), and all his workers would bust their ass for him. Yet, he was a
bigot (of the latter kind). One Christmas Eve, when we both worked late, I
recall him wiping show off his car in the store parking lot and wishing me a
Merry Christmas. We talked a bit, and he told me, ‘Y’know, Danny,
guys like you and me are nothin’ but white niggers to the fuckers who run this
company. We get no respect. They think we’re niggers.’ Now, many PC
blacks I know (especially in the arts) would declare that unrepentantly a racist
comment, and technically it is. But, they would also fail to see that there was
an empathy involved, too. To what degree do you feel racial attitudes of the
last few decades have changed? Millions of whites voted for Obama, yet some
blacks always have a ‘guilty till proven innocent’ attitude
towards whites, and will easily condemn someone’s intellectual ignorance (as
in the above example, without recognizing the emotional empathy. Do you agree?
And what can be done to bridge more of this talking past each other? And not
just black and white, but Jew and black, black and Hispanic, black and Asian,
PJ: Well, I do think that there is empathy in that comment
made by the white manager. But at the same time I understand why many blacks
will look past such nuance and condemn the overall sentiment. Over the past
decade or so, especially with the election of President Obama, hardened racial
attitudes have softened around the edges. Whites and blacks and other racial
groups are much more likely to interact with each other through music and
educational and cultural outlets than at any other time in the past. But in
terms of where whites and blacks live, play, work, and socialize together
segregation remains as American as apple pie. In terms of building bridges, one
of the things I wrote in the aftermath of the Henry Louis Gates Jr. arrest and
controversy was the need for a national dialogue about race. My new book, Dark
Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama hopefully contributes
to this dialogue by discussing the ways in which black radicals confronted
American democracy’s shortcomings while simultaneously contributing to its
DS: I mentioned ‘racial incidents,’ and most
people think ‘white on black.’ Yet, ‘black on white’ crime is usually
seen just as ‘crime’. Why is it not seen in a racial context? And, is that
in itself, racist, in that the expectation of crime amongst blacks is taken as a
given, and not something extraordinary, as in ‘hate crimes’?
PJ: Well, historically white on black crime has been fueled
by racial hatred. Lynchings, race riots, and racial pogroms in the United States
were so commonplace that people gathered around for certain racial killings as
if attending a picnic and sent postcards to friends and relative as souvenirs to
remember the occasion. There is simply no black on white parallel of such
behavior in America’s history.
DS: Do you believe that racism, in America today, is
less about racial supremacism and more just about fear and unease? Or are there
other factors at work?
PJ: I believe that racial supremacy still exists when we
examine America’s politics, wealth structure, corporate power, and criminal
justice system. At the same time there has been unprecedented advancement by
blacks into the upper echelons of political and corporate power perhaps best
exemplified by President Obama.
DS: Whether one is murdered by a serial killer, a
hitman, a spree killer, a pedophile, a mugger, a drug addict looking for cash,
or a Klansman wanting to string up a Jew or black man, the dead are still dead,
right? So, aren’t ‘hate crimes’ silly? After all, the deed is what is to
be punished, not the motive. Your take?
PJ: I would not call
them silly since America has a pernicious history of anti-Semitism and racism it
still has yet to fully confront. The raison detre for hate crimes legislation is
real even if its application is at times imperfect.
DS: Historians often claim that the greatest hate
crimes, which become atrocities like genocide, are often inflicted by the most
similar groups, rather than polar opposites, like white-black, or
European-American Indians. They will cite Serbs and Bosnians, Sunnis and Shia,
Irish and English, Japanese and Chinese, etc. Do you think this is so? If not,
why not, and does it really matter why one group persecutes another?
PJ: Well I understand
the observation, but would say that the various roots of ethnic conflict
(religious, economic, racial) often serve to obscure the human cost of
DS: You are of Haitian descent. To what degree did
tales of the ‘old country’ play into your family life, the way it has in
most European descendents?
PJ: My mother was both
very traditional and very contemporary. She was a strict disciplinarian in terms
of education, curfews, where one could venture off to, and who with. At the same
time she had a very profound interest in history and social justice. She is a
woman of great integrity and passed that on to me. Haitian history played a
significant role in my up-bringing as did Haitian culture. I learned early on
about the Haitian Revolution of 1804, the US occupation of the island in the
early twentieth century, and the long struggle for a lasting democracy waged by
DS: In this essay
you write: ‘Activism, in a variety of forms from joining organizations,
standing on picket lines, protesting the Gulf War, apartheid in South Africa,
and the quarantine of Haitian refugees in Guantanamo, is a legacy passed on from
my mother, a trade-unionist, hospital worker, and member of local 1199 for
almost forty years.’ On a tangent, what are your thoughts of the modern
labor movement? My dad (born in 1916, died in 1983) was a die hard union man,
and I think it’s one of the reasons that, despite not even graduating past 6th
grade, he was far more comfortable around minorities, and far more supportive of
the Civil Rights Movement than many of his friends, who were Wall Street Long
Island Republican sorts. Why has unionism failed? And, do you think that the
increasing number of black and minority workers in unions, percentage-wise, over
the last few decades, has led to greater white apathy toward labor, and its
decline in terms of numbers of workers represented by a union?
PJ: America has a long and rich history and tradition of labor activism.
In many ways however, the relationship between blacks and labor has remained
star-crossed. Now this is not to dismiss or ignore the role of black radicals
such as Hubert Harrison, Asa Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, and Bayard Rustin in
attempting to craft black-labor alliances. Nor does it discount the role played
by Martin Luther King and UAW head Walter Reuther at the March on Washington.
Malcolm X stood in solidarity with the service workers of 1199, which was my
mom’s union, as did Stokely Carmichael who wore an 1199 hat during the
Meredith March Against Fear in the late spring and early summer of 1966.
But racism in labor unions have been the tragic norm, rather than
aberration, historically. During
the Black Power era, black workers set up black caucuses inside of existing
unions and waged wildcat strikes to demand better working conditions. The most
famous instances took place in Detroit, where black auto workers former various
Revolutionary Union Movements at local auto plants, including the Dodge
Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) which culminated in the League of Black
Revolutionary Workers and Black Workers Congress. A very poignant, but
underappreciated cinematic rendering of aspects of black-white race relations
within the context of labor organizing, is found in the 1978 film Blue Collar,
featuring a brilliantly understated Richard Pryor, a fierce Yaphet Kotto, and
the always reliable Harvey Keitel. Another film that touches upon this, albeit
in an earlier era, is John Sayles’ 1987 gem, Matewan.
DS: have not seen Blue
Collar, but Matewan is one of John Sayles’ best films. You further write:
‘As an undergraduate at Stony Brook University, my double major in European
history and Africana Studies was complimented by my involvement in campus
activism and journalism as a writer for the campus newspaper, Black World. At
Stony Brook issues of social justice came alive through a group of mentors in
the Africana Studies department. After graduating from college and
initially wanting to try my hand at free-lance writing, I decided to go to
graduate school. My reasons were practical, political, and intellectual.
Having limited connections to the literati, and wanting to find out more about
the world before writing about it, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in American
history. A graduate degree, I thought, would allow me to raise the stakes of my
community activism to ivory towers where black faces were few and far between.’
Having studied European and American history, what common human threads do
you find between them and African history? European history is generally
seen via the prism of the Enlightenment, and American history via Manifest
Destiny, whereas African history is seen as tribalism, with a few mentions of
some early civilizations: Mali, Ghana, Zulu, etc. Yet, tribalism in Europe was
behind the two worst carnages in modern history, the World Wars. Comments?
PJ: I think that both Europe and Africa are two continents that have
been profoundly impacted by forced and voluntary diasporas, wars, ethnic
conflict, and globalization in its various forms. The common threads between
American, African, and European History is a search for citizenship, freedom,
and human rights in an age and era where such things were very difficult to come
DS: You also write,
‘My graduate school blues were punctuated by participation in community
activism in and around the Philadelphia area. I became intensely involved
with issues surrounding police brutality and the death penalty during these
years. This was due in no small part to efforts to keep journalist Mumia
Abu-Jamal off of death row. I was intrigued by Abu-Jamal’s background as
a respected journalist and was surprised to learn that he had been a former
Black Panther.’ Now, let me state, having suffered at the hands of the
corrupt Serpico-era NYPD
as a youth, I have no love for cops, and detest the blanket post-9/11
hagiography accorded that profession. However, having been in a teen gang, and
having worked at a Mob front carting company as a teen, I am pro-death penalty.
I also think that most liberals shoot themselves in the foot with their off-base
support of killers like Leonard Peltier and Mumia
Abu-Jamal. Later we’ll discuss Bill Cosby’s movement against worshipping
gangstas and the like, but I find Leftist ‘intellectuals’ who support
Peltier or Abu-Jamal to be as daft as those who were pro-Stalin in the 1940s and
1950s. Having looked and read much of these two, it’s clear they were the
killers or protecting the killers, and defending them loses credibility for the
defenders. In the above linked essay I also name former Weather Underground
member Kathleen Soliah in a troika of Leftist Lost Causes, and describe how one
person I used to know, reacted to her: ‘Still the Left alibis
for this would-be, but incompetent, killer. The cry is- but her cause was
JUST! At least to the Liberals who defended her- to the Conservatives
she was part of the 1960s anti-American conspiracy to strip the USA of all its
decency. Neither side could view the KS case objectively. This sick logic
reached its nadir for me when, in 1999, at the time of her arrest, I was
regularly performing at the Balls cabaret in downtown Minneapolis. The cabaret
was run by local singer Leslie Ball- a very sincere, nice, but naïve &
bleeding heart Liberal. Ball, who had for years decried all sorts of injustices
& criminals, & who had served on abortion clinic protection lines-
against anti-abortion terrorists, now started defending the good Liberal
terrorist KS- mouthing the silly & fallacious conspiracy lies. It was sad to
see that hypocrisy lay at the root of Ball’s convictions- but that is the way
for most humans, especially those who identify with a ‘group’ rather than an
ethos.’ So, is your support of Abu-Jamal based upon evidence, or group
identity rather than ethics?
PJ: I am against the death penalty on principle. Our criminal justice
system retains too many flaws and biases (racial and economic) to allow the
state to put a person to death. Also, as a historian who has studied 1960s era
criminal cases against activists (such as Black Panther Geronimo Pratt who spent
decades in prison for a murder he did not commit) I think that we must be very
careful in terms of sifting through evidence in these cases.
So, I think that its dismissive to caricature support for Abu-Jamal not
receiving the death sentence as part of some loony left.
DS: Do you see any connection between the Left’s support of the above
named trio and the Right’s support of the anti-abortion and Olympic
bomber/killer, Eric Rudolph. I state, from the essay:
‘As with the 3 Lefty heroes, the Right has trotted out all sorts of
excuses to justify ER’s crimes, merely because he supports the Right’s
‘right’ causes. Similarly, the Left- who have alibied galore for KS, LP,
& MAJ- whereas ER is concerned, finds no pity for a ‘monster’. For
both extremes their support comes down to politics, not evidence. Government
conspiracies, supposed nobility and justice are spouted, yet neither side can
admit that these extremists are merely mirror images of each other.’ Comments.
PJ: I do not subscribe to conspiracy
theories from the left or right. As a historian I have studied hundreds of
thousands of pages of FBI files that illustrate the way in which the government
illegally and unconstitutionally targeted Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the
Nation of Islam, Martin Luther King, and the Black Panthers. At times the FBI
and local law enforcement pushed already simmering tensions over the edge into
violence and destruction. So as an
American citizen deeply invested in preserving democratic values for dissidents,
irrespective of their ideological orientations, I understand the deep suspicion
that some have about police and law enforcement officials based on our recent
DS: Back to the more personal. What were some of the
cultural touchstones in your life, the things, events, or people who graced your
existence with those ‘I remember exactly where I was’ moments?
When did you gain a fascination for things historic?
PJ: My love of
history comes from my mother. One specific cultural touchstone was the release
of Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing in the summer of 1989. I was living
in NYC and was sixteen years old and remembered reading newspapers and watching
news reports that suggested the film would cause racial violence in the city.
DS: What did
you want to be when you grew up? Who were your childhood heroes and why? Where
did you go to high school, and to what colleges?
PJ: I always wanted to do something that would be connected
to reading, writing, and research. My childhood heroes, in addition to my
mother, were historical figures such as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, the
Kennedys (both JFK and RFK), Toussaint Louverture. I went to Holy Cross High
School in Queens, Stony Brook University, and Temple University.
sort of child were you- a loner or center of attention? Did you get good grades?
Were you a mama’s boy, a nerd, or a rebel?
My mom kept both me and my brother on the straight and narrow.
I was stubborn and could be hard to handle at times. In school I was very
social, but also very outspoken and politically conscious.
siblings? What paths in life have they followed?
PJ: I have an older brother, Kerith, who is an emergency
medical doctor in Maryland. He is happily married and I have a beautiful nine
year old niece.
DS: Any children?
What are their interests?
PJ: I don’t have any children yet. I’m interested in
traveling, wine, yoga, bike riding, outdoors activity.
DS: What of
your parents? What were their professions? Did they encourage your pursuit of
PJ: I was raised by my mother, who was a lab technologist
at a hospital in New York. She certainly encouraged my pursuit and love for
reading and history. She told me stories about Haitian history and the history
of the civil rights movement and would buy me any book that I wanted or found of
DS: What was
your youth like, both at home and in terms of socializing with other children?
PJ: Very active in terms of socializing with other children
who lived in the neighborhood and who were at the church that we went too.
DS: Let us put aside the specific area of history that
you are versed in and return to your childhood reading. Although I write
fiction, criticism, and poetry, as a child I read almost nothing in those three
fields. Instead, I read history and science books and magazines, maps,
dictionaries, almanacs, and encyclopediae. Were you someone plumbing history
books? If so, which books and authors grabbed your attention? Why? Did they
influence your desire for history at an early age?
PJ: Early on I read C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins,
which is a classic history of the Haitian Revolution. That book’s narrative
really influenced the way that I thought about history.
DS: On my list of most influential books in my life, I
would include Alex Haley’s The Autobiography Of Malcolm X (for
his life as a teen was similar to mine, save a few decades earlier); Walt
Whitman’s Leaves Of Grass (started my love of poetry); Loren
Eiseley’s autobiography All
The Strange Hours (supernal prose that probes the wonders of the
cosmos); Leonard Shlain’s Art And Physics (which helped me
understand Modern Art), and the Betty Smith’s novel A
Tree Grows In Brooklyn (a great book). What books would you put on
such a list as mine above?
PJ: The Black Jacobins; The Souls of Black Folk
by W.E.B. Du Bois; Cane by Jean Toomer; Native Son by Richard
Wright; Black Power by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton; The
Autobiography of Malcolm X; Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch.
DS: What exactly is it about history that rapt you? Was
there a single thread or narrative- like the Conquistadors, the Crusades,
Napoleon, the World Wars, that made you say, ‘Ah, if I wanna understand
people, I gotta learn about __.’?
PJ: Broadly speaking the circumstances that enveloped the
nation on the long road from slavery to freedom. More specifically, the civil
rights-Black Power era and the way in which the social movements of the 1960s
transformed American democracy.
DS: Do you consider yourself a social or cultural
critic, now, having penned works of history? If so, what further aims or
obsessions will you pursue in later books? And, if so, what do you see as the
relationship between history and criticism? Are there areas of overlap, or, are
they, as the late evolutionary scientist Stephen
Jay Gould claimed of religion and science, Non-Overlapping Magisteria?
PJ: Well, I do consider myself a historian and cultural
critic. Future works, including my current in-progress bio of Stokely Carmichael
(Kwame Ture) will plumb the impact that 1960s based icons have had on our
conception of citizenship, democracy, race relations, and equality.
DS: What are your views on religion?
What links do you see between mythos and religion? Is myth merely expired
religion, and religion myth alive? What effect does reliable history have on the
shadowy beliefs of myth and religion? Can it clarify, does it extirpate, or does
it enhance the status of myth and religion? Do you see religion spawning from
the same human wellspring as art?
PJ: Well as a Christian
I believe that religion is a wellspring to a variety of important traditions,
customs, and practices, including, but not limited to, art.
DS: There’s the
old John Ford Western, The Man
Who Shot Liberty Valance, that
has one of American cinema’s most noted quotations: ‘When the legend
becomes fact, print the legend.’ It seems to me that a quote like that
has often been taken too literally by lesser historians and journalists.
Oftentimes, when reading history books, one comes across apocrypha that is known
apocrypha, debunked elsewhere, yet re-presented as fact. Is this tendency a
major problem in history? Is it a part of the political polarization that we
have seen early in this century? And, what is the remedy for such manifestly
PJ: That’s a very difficult challenge. It really takes
strenuous research to be certain that something that seems to be true by virtue
of it being so often repeated, is actually factually and empirically true.
DS: Are there any major areas of history- American,
world, general or specific- that you think have been wrongheaded, since the
earliest times they were propounded? What are they and why?
PJ: Well the Dunning School of Reconstruction immediately
comes to mind. I am referring to a broad array of early twentieth century
scholarship that fallaciously portrayed the Klan and white supremacy as a heroic
response to black savagery and white Northern betrayal during the post-Civil War
period of Reconstruction (1865-1877).
DS: Do you
belong to any political party, and what are your views on such current
politicized matters as euthanasia, abortion, gay marriage, and stem cell
research? Do you see such political and/or legal things in the larger historical
context? Do you view, in fact, most matters through a historical lens, or are
there times when you drop the role of historian for that of man, citizen,
PJ: I am an active citizen who votes on a variety of issues
more based on my core principles than any party line.
DS: Ok, let’s briefly go over your two books: The
Black Power Movement: Rethinking The Civil Rights And Black Power Era and Waiting
’Til The Midnight Hour: A Narrative History Of Black Power In America.
You edited the former. Whose work was in it, and what was the premise? Many
people look back on Black Power as a relict movement, sort of the black
equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan- a bunch of hateful black people who ridiculed
mainstream black leaders of the day. How does the book reconcile that
stereotype? What prompted its writing? And how long did it take to
PJ: The Black
Power Movement features contributions from some leading historians in the
field. The anthology was the first
to offer a historically contextualized approach to the study of the civil rights
and Black Power periods. It does more than reconcile the stereotype of Black
Power as the civil rights movement’s evil twin, it explodes it by offering
empirical evidence to the contrary even as it critically examines the
weaknesses, strengths, and shortcomings of the period.
DS: The latter work was penned by you. Some history
books are a rather dry recitation of facts. Others, like the work of Daniel J.
Boorstin, take the novelistic history approach, wherein real persons, such as
Christopher Columbus, are written of as if unknown quantities, characters in a
novel that we, the readers, are exploring Terra Incognita with. What was the
approach you took? What prompted its writing? And how long did it take to write?
And, what is the overall Joseph style of writing vis-à-vis Boorstin or other
well known historians?
PJ: Waiting Til the Midnight Hour took five years to
write. Its narrative style is inspired by the work of a number of historians,
writers, and scholars: Manning Marable; Nell Irvin Painter; Robin Kelley; David
Levering Lewis; Taylor Branch; Clay Carson; Sonia Sanchez; David Garrow and many
others. The writing style was based
on an effort to do justice to the “bigness” of the story. Black Power
really is a world-historical epoch, one that has a cast of thousands, and takes
places on several continents, crossing borders and boundaries. To tell this
history properly, I wanted to write it in way that mirrored the energy and
excitement of the era being chronicled and analyzed.
DS: Can you give the readers a one or two paragraph précis
of its content, argument, and conclusions?
Waiting Til the Midnight Hour focuses on the intellectual, political, and cultural networks that gave
the Black Power breadth and depth, and in so doing transforms historical
understanding of the black power movement in several ways. First, it
reperiodizes the era, arguing that the movement’s origins—not simply its
antecedents—can be traced back to the mid-1950s in the local activism of
Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. I argue that the movement was guided by
international impulses, most notably the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung,
Indonesia. Second, Waiting ’Til the Midnight Hour sees black power
activism less as a disillusioned, negative response to postwar liberalism, and
more as a movement that grew from a black radical tradition with deep, shared
roots in the civil rights movement’s heroic period of the 1950s and early
1960s. Between the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (1954) and
the Voting Rights Act of 1965 early black power militants and civil rights
activists operated alongside each other and forged pragmatic working alliances.
Ultimately, the book argues that Black Power helped to fundamentally
DS: What exactly was Black Power, if not what most
people old enough to recall it think it was? How was it different, or similar,
to Marcus Garvey’s Back To Africa nationalism, and was it a descendent of the
slave revolts by Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vesey, and Nat Turner?
PJ: Black Power was a movement for social, political,
cultural, and economic self-determination.
In truth, my study examines aspects of its twentieth century iteration,
but there has indeed been a longstanding movement for black power which I think
includes the slave rebellions that you mentioned and both documented and
undocumented acts and histories of resistance.
DS: In the book you mention Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones),
and while I was long an admirer of his early incendiary essay style, his poetry
swiftly became nothing but bankrupt sloganeering. In the mid-1980s I went to a
reading of his at the West Side YMCA, and he had become a parody of himself. His
‘reading’ consisted of being surrounded by a dozen or so young white college
aged acolytes in white robes (almost all female), and a nubile female reading
two of his poems. He read nothing, and played the part of the Buddha. It was
like watching a scene from some cultist ritual. Then, after 9/11, there was his
Anti-Semitic insanity, and the controversy that ensued after a bit of his
doggerel became embroiled in a controversy over his being named New Jersey’s
Poet Laureate. Similarly, one of the best poets of the mid-20th
Century was Gwendolyn Brooks, until she abandoned art for political
sloganeering. First, what are your thoughts on Baraka, the man and writer? And
why is there such a noxious vein of Anti-Semitism in much of the political
movements that seek to empower blacks? Secondly, do you think that the Black
Power movement (like all politics) almost always retards the art of the
so-called artist? Explain.
PJ: Amiri Baraka remains one of the protean figures of post-war black art, poetry, aesthetics, and activism. His unabashed and outspoken political views have, historically, bred controversy but it’s important to note that in the late 1960s and early 1970s he emerged as an important local and national and global figure known as much for his activism as for his art. I don’t believe that politics, or Black Power, retards artistic growth. It depends on the individual. Certainly, some artists, including Baraka, went through specific phases that corresponded their art to a definite political mood, but social movements often produce that. His book of essays, Home, published in 1966 remains a literary masterpiece with a decisive political edge.
In the 1980s and 1990s there were well-publicized mutual recriminations
between certain segments of the Black and Jewish communities over allegations of
black anti-Semitism and Jewish anti-black racism. I won’t rehearse these
arguments here but I do believe that an over-emphasis on tensions between blacks
and Jews obscures a deep history of political alliances that reached a crescendo
during the civil rights movement’s heroic years.
DS: One of the things that I have tried to use
Cosmoetica for is the promotion of neglected works of art, mostly poetry
and writing- such as the essays of scientist Loren Eiseley and the poetry
of James Emanuel, whom I
interviewed here. Emanuel is mostly a neglected writer in the U.S., mainly
for having been abroad for thirty or so years, after a personal loss suffered at
the hands of local police enforcement. His is a life of a 20th
Century black American, but more so the life of a great artist that needs
further rediscovery and championing at a level that I, currently, cannot provide
(even with a popular website, and being responsible for about 90% of the online
information about him), so that he can take his proper place amongst the canon
of both black and American poetry and art. First, as a historian, do you ever
think you would delve in to biography (I’ve read you are contemplating a bio
on Stokely Carmichael), or are you interested in
the larger trends? Second, as Emanuel’s major papers are already in the
Library of Congress, would you know of any historians or biographers willing to
possibly attempt a biography of this great and deserving poet?
PJ: I am unfamiliar with James Emanuel’s poetry, but not
surprised to hear of such neglect. I am in the process of completing the first
historical biography of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture). His life was enormously
complex and impactful and I believe that a biography of such an indelible figure
necessarily reveals larger historical trends as well as the specifics of an
DS: To digress, a moment, and on a purely philosophic
level, since I mentioned Emanuel and biography, in what camp of history do you
fall into- the Great Man camp, which believes history is wrought by great
individuals, or the Great Trends camp, which feels that history flows and the
individuals at the crux are less important? Personally, I fall in the middle,
the third area, that feels there are Great Men (good or evil) but also
undeniable trends. Your take, and why?
PJ: Well I would say a combination of not only significant
individuals and historical trends but add the impact of the grassroots, what
some have referred to as history from below. My Stokely Carmichael biography is
illustrative. Carmichael was born in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, moved to the
Bronx, spent time in Harlem, went to college in Washington, DC (Howard
University), and spent significant stretches of time in the Mississippi Delta,
Alabama’s black belt, and, later, parts of West Africa (Guinea) and the larger
Third World. At each instance there
are several ways to chronicle his story, but I think the most historically
accurate tries to examine not just the larger historical trends of the era (Cold
War, Civil Rights, the age of Decolonization) or historical figures (JFK, LBJ,
MLK, Malcolm X, Fidel Castro Ho Chi Minh), but the people he encountered who
remain relatively anonymous but who impacted and helped shape his life’s
DS: Being America, and despite the election of our first
black President, there are still sharp divides racially, from cultural and
economic perspectives. Prior to Obama’s election, in the early part of this
century, there was an oft-asked question about where America’s Black leaders
had gone. Implicit in the asking was the assumption that there were no Malcolm
Xes nor Martin Luther King Jr.s any longer. Now, when alive, both men were
hardly revered by most non-black people. But, folks like Jesse Jackson or Al
Sharpton (two religious leaders with questionable backgrounds and major scandals
in their past- Jackson’s infidelities and Sharpton’s Tawana Brawley Hoax)
were held up over civic and elected leaders, as well as other people in
Academia, media, or business. It was lamented that Hip Hop and sports stars were
all that black children could idolize, and there was the silly Ebonics fuss. And
cultural commentators like Richard
Thompson Ford even wrote a
book blasting as hard at racebaiters, like Sharpton and Cornel West (who, to
me, often makes good points, then turns around and sounds like a slimmer
Sharpton admixed with a dose of Joseph Campbellian Academic charlatanry), as
much as traditional racism. You wrote a
review of a book by journalist Juan Williams that praised folk like Bill
Cosby in standing up against excuse-making and the hip hop culture of debasement
toward black females, and took a less extreme view than either Cosby or
Williams. First, was all of this nonsense about a leaderless black America (pre-Obama)
just the media’s need to fill the 24 hour news cycle?
PJ: I think that those who lament the dearth of leadership
in the black community, usually have no deep roots in these communities.
Before Obama’s emergence as president the black community had leaders
across all walks of life, from the clergy to the academy.
As late as 1995 Louis Farrakhan successfully organized the Million Man
March. What many people were actually commenting on was the decline of a
specific kind of movement iconography found in the images of MLK, Malcolm X, the
Black Panthers, and Stokely Carmichael, and, in the 1970s, figures such as Amiri
Baraka, Angela Davis, etc.
DS: What are your views of comedian Bill Cosby, and
his recent ‘crusade,’ if you will, against hip hop? Is he just an out of
touch old man, or a pompous one? I recall, years ago, when his show was a hit,
and he appeared on the old Phil Donahue talk show, Cosby railed against the
character Archie Bunker, from All In The
Family, stating that that show and character were not positives on
the cultural landscape, because the bigoted Bunker never apologized for his
views. Yet, that was the very point of
the show, and the nub of why bigotry is so vexing a problem. And
Cosby simply could not wrap his mind around that fact. So, while a celebrity,
he’s just a goddamned comedian, not some great thinker, so why is he given
such accord? I would argue it’s because of what I term ‘the
celebritization of expertise.’ If someone is famous for some
thing, they are seen as having more insight or knowledge on other things. There
is no logic for it, and every time some Hollywood celebrity shoots off their
mouth they prove it; so do you agree that this celebritization of expertise is
why Cosby got so much mileage out of rather dense and out of touch remarks, or
was he on to something, but simply ill equipped to properly frame the nub of the
PJ: Cosby has an educational doctorate, one that was earned
through coursework and writing a dissertation, from University of Massachusetts-Amherts,
as does his wife Camille, so I would place him in a unique category as someone
who is famous and intelligent. Cosby’s
emphasis on accountability and self-determination, while laudable, were
overwhelmed by a punitive tone that seemed to complexly dismiss the
institutional and structural barriers that lead to black unemployment,
illiteracy, disease, death, and incarceration. So in a sense he came off as an
antagonistic critic of the black poor, even though from his perspective, he was
offering “tough love” and a kind of motivational tongue lashing that made
many whites applaud and emboldened black elites including President Obama, to
ape this criticism. The tougher road, I believe, was crafted by Martin Luther
King Jr. who stressed personal and societal accountability to the point of
arguing that wealth redistribution was fundamental to the moral and economic
fabric of American democracy, a prophecy that still reverberates to this day.
celebritized experts, and the earlier mentioned idea of causality. When I
interviewed philosopher Daniel
Dennett, he seemed almost a blank slate himself, unwilling to take on
philosophic subjects beyond that he’s written of. As example, he had appeared
on a tv talk show at the end of the century, as a panelist regarding the most
influential folk of the last millennium. You recall how many lists were made, no
doubt, and this was a classic example of the celebritization of expertise.
Anyway, I thought it a great way to dovetail with my interest in mass murderers
and despots throughout history, since I believe Genghis Khan was overlooked on
most lists, with the issue of causality and determinism. Thus, I asked this
That puts me in mind of another Charlie
Rose show you did, with Steven Pinker and others, at the turn of the
century, on the most influential people of last century. What I found a bit
galling was some of the sheer stupidity on that panel- most notably by the
President of the Carnegie Institute, Maxine Singer. She equated influence with
good morality- an asinine position, yet one which no one, not even you,
challenged. I similarly recalled Time magazine having a most important people of
the last millennium issue, and leaving off, to my mind, easily the most
influential person of the last thousand years, Genghis Khan. My reasoning is
that influence comes with time, so the most influential person simply could not
be in the last couple of hundred years. Then, there would have to be reach over
several spheres. Then, there would be the mind experiment of removing that
person and seeing if he or she was merely a part of historic forces, or one of
the Great Men of History. Khan fits all of these- even if he was the worst mass
killer in human history, up until the 20th Century. He was born early
on- the 12th Century, and he took a nomadic Gobi people, with a six
thousand year history of no territorial expansion, united the Mongol tribes with
the Turkic tribes, and built a nation larger in area than the old Soviet Union-
all within two decades- and sans guns or any advanced war materiel. His effect
on politics, the arts, religion (his was a secular state), and life was
profound. Remove him and the Mongols likely go on as nomads. Then there is no
check on Chinese expansionism. Khan forced the Chinese to abandon their junk
explorations across the Pacific and likely to the Americas. They hibernated
xenophobically as a world power for centuries. The Khanates carved out of his
empire, by his descendants, helped establish the Ottoman Empire, which acted as
a bulwark against Muslim expansionism into Europe. Without the Ottomans, Islam
may have displaced the Papacy, forcing its withdrawal to Scandinavia and a
reduced status as a regional Arctic cult. China may have expanded across the
Subcontinent, Oceania, and into the Andes and the western half of the Americas,
while Europe was Islamized. Moorish Spain and Imam Britain may have then settled
the Americas from the east. The Cold War of the last century may not have been
between Communism and Capitalism, but between Islam and Sino aggression. Yet,
none of that happened because one Mongol named Temujin preferred horseback
riding and conquest to life as a scavenger. To me, this omission shows the
profound lack of vision many so-called leaders and experts have in their
First, would you agree with my ranking of Genghis Khan as
numero uno in influence last eon, for despite his genocidal ruthlessness, he was
an organizational genius with a mind that wanted to know seemingly everything?
He was arguably also the most amazing figure in human history. If you disagree,
why? And why do you think he was so ignored on such lists? Was it simple
Eurocentrism? Or something more confounding?
Dennett flippantly replied: ‘I guess I just don’t know enough about Genghis Khan to judge,’ which implied he a) had no clue that his humor was lacking, b) the question was essentially not about the Mongol warlord, c) did not care about giving a good interview nor digging a bit deeper into his mind, or d) all of the above. So, let me first ask you if such lack of intellectual engagement is a problem unique to ‘celebrity experts’ as Dennett, systemic in academia, or simply evidence of the greater intellectual apathy of the times? After all, Dennett is a philosopher, not a creative thinker, nor a historian, so why was he even on such a panel on historical importance in the first place? Secondly, given the points I laid out in the above question, whom would you place in the top spot on such a list, and what are your views of causality and determinism?
PJ: Certainly Genghis Khan is an important historical figure and your question makes a persuasive case, but not being an expert in this field, I would demur from taking a position. I do think that the idea of Euro-centric or western-centric approaches to thought may have played a role here.
Well, I believe esteemed thinkers add complexity to intellectual
discussion even if they are not historians. In terms of causality and
determinism, I think it’s interesting to lay out counterfactuals, like yours
about Khan, above. Beyond that when
we look as history, we usually find multi-causal factors leading to war, trade,
conquest, social movements, etc, but this is not to say that these events are
pre-determined. History reminds us that all events have various levels of
contingency and the world and way we live now may have been drastically
transformed by other factors.
DS: Back to Cosby: I have a number of problems with him.
To start, while I grew up watching the Fat Albert cartoons as a
kid (and loved them, as they were the only cartoons that showed areas like where
I grew up), I found his 1980s hit tv show to be condescending, moralizing, and
shallow (he ripped off dozens of episode premises from Fat Albert).
Yet, he’s black, rich, and famous. The same applies to the even more shallow
Oprah Winfrey. Here’s the richest most powerful non-royal woman in the world,
and yet she’s a bottomless black hole of an ego- witness her mug on every
edition of her O magazine, or the gratuitous 50th
birthday party she televised, where she had Hollywood celebrities come and pay
tribute lest she not destroy their careers. Yet, these two celebrities are what
pass for intellectual or deep discourse in America (in general) and Black
America (specifically). Yet, one need only read the essays of James Baldwin- a
great wordsmith and acute social critic (in fact, a better social than literary
critic)- to see what a real thinker can provide a culture. Why is social
discourse amongst blacks, and all Americans, so damned debased and dumbed down?
PJ: We are missing the kind of national intellectual
discourse that existed during the era of James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry,
Ralph Ellison, etc. There are a number of different reasons for this, the
overwhelming rise of a certain kind of pop cultural celebrity that replaced
literary and intellectual celebrity over the past thirty years, the rise of
“teen culture,” the internet, demise of publishing, independent bookstores,
the internet, etc. The consolidation of capital over newspaper, television, and
entertainment has really constricted the kind of robust public intellectual
debates, discussions, and controversies that were part of the national discourse
during the immediate post-World War II decades.
DS: Do you think the moralizing of the Cosbys and
Winfreys is actually counterproductive to real and meaningful discourse?
PJ: Well, I won’t comment specifically on Cosby and
Winfrey in this regard. I believe that the black community is desperate for
alternative voices, especially those offering deeply learned yet accessible
historical, political, and intellectual insights. One of the great secrets of
Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Stokely Carmichael was that they offered
keen, at times controversial, political worldviews that added to our national
debate over issues of race, war, and democracy. They exposed generations to
thoughts and ideas that they would otherwise not have heard. We’re missing
that right now.
DS: Is their form of dumbing down any different than the
Ebonics silliness, or when black kids state that they don’t want to learn
because ‘education is a white thing’? And, in regards to all
of this, is not taking offence always a conscious choice on the
part of the offended? Mature people simply slough things off, no?
PJ: From what I’ve read the notion that black kids think
that being smart is acting white is largely anecdotal but has become a veritable
boom industry for op-ed writers and journalists.
DS: I mentioned Al Sharpton and
the Tawana Brawley Hoax of the late 1980s. Do you think the ghost of the Brawley
Hoax influenced what happened during the more recent Duke Rape Case Hoax? And
what do you think of how that played out, with the disgrace afforded to the
former DA who brought the case to notoriety?
PJ: Well I believe the two cases are separate. I think, away from these two instances, the larger lesson is that in the United States, too often black women who are in fact sexually assaulted are not treated with the same level of dignity, care, protect, and outrage against their perpetrators as their white counterparts.
DS: Re: the American
Constitution, What are your views on Strict Constructionism and Constitutional
Originalism? Are they not rather silly notions since the Constitution is written
very vaguely, for a reason, and all law is, in one form or another, social
PJ: The Constitution is a living
breathing document that, depending on the era, needs to be adjusted, added to,
and expanded to defend and protect rights that the founders could not have
conceived of at the time it was written.
DS: In all of your writings, have you ever examined
the early to mid-Twentieth Century policy of racial re-segregation in northern
industrial cities? I mean policies as the Wagner-Steagall Act, and men like
Robert Moses, who actively engineered the breaking up of integrated urban
neighborhoods for the express purpose of ghettoizing blacks and other
minorities, which led, in turn, to the practice of real estate redlining. Even
as late as 1991, when I left New York City, I had realtors tell me they would
not show my home to minorities, for fear it would be torched. This system
redistributed wealth from the working class to the rich, but no one ever calls
it ‘class warfare’ when
the rich prey on the poor. For all the talk you hear of, from Right Wingers,
about Socialism and the phony redistribution of wealth from rich to poor, one
never hears a peep about how the middle class blacks’ wealth was redistributed
to the wealthy in this era. How did this happen, and how can such historical
realities come to light?
PJ: The making of
postwar urban and suburban America in places like New York, Chicago, and
elsewhere is still being chronicled by some excellent historians and
sociologists. My work touches upon aspects of this. Blockbusting, red-lining,
steering, were part of the creation of urban America. Jim Crow was part of the
New Deal and the FHA granted loans to whites for houses in segregated
neighborhoods, while blacks were provided, except in rare cases, access to
housing projects. So in a very real
sense, white supremacy was not only practiced in terms of public accommodations
but sewn into the fabric of public policy with real world economic consequences
for generations of blacks, including the middle-class.
The only way to publicize such historical facts and their consequences to
the larger general public is to ignite a national conversation about race and
democracy that would help us move forward as a nation in reaching toward
democratic ideals and social justice.
DS: In the public commons, every time a corporation is
granted tax relief, wealth is funneled and redistributed upward. You hear so
much about wealth redistribution, but never its initial distribution nor ‘predistribution;’
such as when companies get those huge tax breaks, or when loopholes allow rich
individuals to hide assets offshore, or corporations to give out bonuses to
board members and executives, to reduce ‘profits,’ and make it seem like
they lost money, therefore lessen their tax load. Again, why do you think this
is- especially given the oft-heard, and laughable, rubric about the Mainstream
Media being ‘liberal’? After all, the mega-corporations that control the
networks, radio stations, and major newspaper chains are all Right Wing. Who
cares if the average beat reporter leans Democratic? I use the old plantation
analogy- who cares if all the slaves lean Left if Massuh is a hard Rightist?
This is so obvious, with any even cursory glance at history, so why has the
Right been so successful in bamboozling the poor and working class into voting
against their interests? Do ‘values’ on abortion, guns, and homosexuality
really trump that? Comments?
PJ: The 1960s unleashed a social and political revolution, one that was led by blacks but included multi-racial and multi-cultural Americans of all stripes, and included women, gays, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Asians, Native Americans, urban dwellers and rural sharecroppers who al demanded a fundamental transformation of American democracy. There was also a conservative counter-revolution, popularly conceived of as having been a top-down phenomenon engineered by Richard Nixon and intellectualized by Kevin Phillips and others but in actuality took root in conservative sunbelt-states such as Arizona (that gave us Barry Goldwater), ideologues such as Phyllis Schlafly, and an anti-tax movement that pre-dates the contemporary celebrity of Grover Norquist. From Orange County, California to upstate New York conservatives organized at the grassroots level to combat Affirmative Action, school busing, immigration, property taxes, and social welfare. Right-wing think tanks such at the Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute gave intellectual heft and ballast to this movement by creating a web of academic and public policy arguments that formed the emerging right-wing infrastructure of the 1970s. By the 1980s white supremacist and anti-statist arguments that had first been articulated bluntly by Barry Goldwater and Alabama Governor George Wallace (who received more than 8 million votes in the 1968 presidential election) were elegantly re-imagined by Ronald Reagan, whose “welfare queen” rhetoric up-dated old-fashioned race baiting in a manner that drew approval from white working and middle-class voters who, truth be told, even during the height of the New Deal were resistant to the idea of black folks sharing in the largesse of the liberal state.
Part of the reason conservatives have such as easy time demonizing blacks is based on more than just cultural racism, although that’s very important as well. The issue at stake is that blacks managed to gain access to the liberal state not only just as it was declining (witness the election of black mayors to decaying cities such as Cleveland, Newark, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Gary, Indiana in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s) but their initial point of entry during the New Deal was on a lesser scale that kept them perpetually vulnerable. Let me explain. The New Deal inaugurates two-tiered liberalism where most blacks have no access to social security and Aide to Widows with Dependent Children. Even GI Bill benefits were distributed along racial lines. So our current social welfare state protect Medicare (over Medicaid) and Social Security (while Bill Clinton ended transfer payments to the poor by overhauling welfare in a manner that put millions of more poor children at risk and has wreaked havoc on some of society;s most vulnerable citizens).
In short, it becomes easier to demonize programs that our racial history,
politics, and public policy have identified almost exclusively with benefiting
undeserving minorities, especially blacks.
The assault on Affirmative Action is especially ironic since more white
women have benefited from these measures than African Americans.
DS: I’m always humored when I deal with people who say
they don’t find a certain racial or ethnic group attractive or not. When I
grew up there was an old saying, ‘It don’t matter the color of the
skin, only what shape it’s in.’ Admittedly a sexist remark, but not
racist. Yet, many people, of all ethnic groups, deny this verity. A white pal of
mine once told me he just was not attracted to black women. I then asked if he
found Halle Berry, Vanessa Williams, or Beyonce Knowles attractive, and if
he’d pounce on them if they were warming his bed after a hard day’s work.
His tongue hit the floor. After some more queries, I found out he did not like
what he felt were certain ‘black’ features, which in sum, meant he did not
want to fuck Aunt Jemima. Yet, here he was- a self-proclaimed Liberal, not a
David Duke wannabe, and he still could not separate a stereotype from
individuals. And, for the record, I don’t believe, for a second, that Duke
would turn down a romp in the sack with the three aforementioned celebrities. Do
you find it more difficult dealing with the closet Left Wing bigots, or the open
Right Wing sorts?
PJ: Well I think everyone has some residual stereotyping
that they hold onto that based on family, generation, even geography.
DS: I have a brother who is black, and he’s married
to a white woman who is quite attractive. Yet, this is often a rarity, in that
there is truth to the claim, by many black women, that successful black men
often ‘trade up’ in
spouses by dumping a black woman for a white woman, even if the white woman is
more like a Roseanne Barr than a Catherine Zeta-Jones. What do you think of this
phenomenon? Is it just a personal matter, or does it say something about the
state of race relations in America?
PJ: I guess that depends on why people are choosing their
partners. Since interracial couples (black and white especially) stand out in
our society, perhaps anecdotally people tend to notice if a black man is with an
attractive white women rather than the reverse situation. Certainly, almost
fifty years after the March On Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights
and Voting Rights Acts it says something about contemporary race relations that
we still obsess over this.
DS: I ask this question of almost all my interviewees,
but, as a historian uses different parts of the brain that artists or
scientists, let me see if you find any relevance to it. I believe that artists
are fundamentally different, intellectually, than non-artists, and that the
truly great artists are even more greatly different from the average artists
than the average artist is from the non-artist. Let me quote from an essay I did
on Harold Bloom,
the reactionary critic who champions the Western Canon against Multiculturalism:
‘….the human mind has 3 types of intellect. #1 is the Functionary- all of
us have it- it is the basic intelligence that IQ tests purport to measure, &
it operates on a fairly simple add & subtract basis. #2 is the Creationary-
only about 1% of the population has it in any measurable quantity- artists,
discoverers, leaders & scientists have this. It is the ability to see beyond
the Functionary, & also to see more deeply- especially where pattern
recognition is concerned. And aPJo to be able to lead observers with their art.
Think of it as Functionary2 . #3 is the Visionary- perhaps only 1% of
the Creationary have this in measurable amounts- or 1 in 10,000 people. These
are the GREAT artists, etc. It is the ability to see farther than the
Creationary, not only see patterns but to make good predictive & productive
use of them, to help with creative leaps of illogic (Keats’ Negative
Capability), & also not just lead an observer, but impose will on an
observer with their art. Think of it as Creationary2 , or Functionary3
.’ In the sciences, this dynamic is applicable. When I interviewed Steven
Pinker, he seemed to feel IQ was good at predicting success in life- at
least socially, academically, and career-wise. But my 3 Intellects posit is
something I don’t think he fully got the point of. That is that creativity is
wholly ‘outside’ the axis of IQ. In other words, there could be someone with
an IQ of 180, and a Functionary Mind, vs. someone with a 120 IQ, and while the
180 may be better suited for test taking, the 120 IQ, with a Creationary or
Visionary Mind, will be able to understand concepts at a deeper level. IQ
measures narrow problem solving, but is utterly useless in regards to
creativity. To use an analogy: think of vision tests. In a real world sense,
this is akin to the Functionary being able to see on the 20/20 scale, while the
Creationary might be able to see on the first scale- yet only at 20/50, but also
be able to see in other light- X-rays or infrared, etc. Then, with the
Visionary, not only are the two sorts of sight available, but also the ability
to see around corners, through steel, etc. In a scientific sense, the
Functionary might be represented by your typical person working in the sciences,
the Creationary by someone along the lines of a Madame Curie, or Nicolaus
Copernicus, who can discover great ideas, but which are logical extensions of
prior paradigms. The Visionary, however, might be able to make even greater
leaps- such as Hutton reaching far beyond Bishop Ussher, Darwin’s and
Wallace’s ability to transcend Lamarckism, Newton’s development of a new
mathematics- calculus, etc. What are your thoughts on this, re: history? Are
there historians who might be considered visionaries? Who are they? And, if you
are copacetic with such a system, where on the scale would you place yourself?
PJ: Well I’ll start
off by saying that I won’t place myself on any such scale. But there are
historians who are visionaries. W.E.B. Du Bois’s corpus of scholarship on
African and African American history offers a visionary framework for
understanding race relations in American history.
Carter G. Woodson, author of the classic volume, The
Mis-Education of the Negro and founder of Negro History and Literature Week
in 1926, which, would become Black History Month fifty years later, is another
visionary. John Hope Franklin,
author of the seminal From Slavery to Freedom, did more to mainstream black
history in the postwar era than perhaps any other person living was a rare
visionary who, by the end of his life, was recognized as such by President
Clinton with a Freedom Medal.
DS: I’ve always been pro-Affirmative Action, and, no
bullshitting around, pro-quota, because without quotas of inclusion there will
be many places with quotas of exclusion- meaning the number of minorities will
be zero. That’s as true today as ever, just as blacks hear cab doors click
shut, and just as they are disproportionately followed through department stores
by security guards. I still argue with white people I am friends with who simply
do not live in the same reality. They are totally clueless that such behaviors
as those I described exist, even if they are not immune to occasional
hostilities directed at them from blacks or other minorities. I find their
obliviousness astounding. Comments?
PJ: Well, this really relates to the answer I provided to
your earlier question about the right wing and it infrastructure. Affirmative
Action is a misunderstood political and public policy half-measure that’s not
really directed exclusively toward blacks. The brilliant Temple University
philosopher Lewis Gordon has written insightfully about this topic and reminds
us that the real question about Affirmative Action is the number of mediocre
whites that reside, lead, and attend prestigious institutions, corporations, and
boards while we focus on the few minorities, many whom are overqualified
especially at elite institutions of higher education. Affirmative Action, and the antagonism against it despite the
fact that white women have been its biggest beneficiaries, reveals the depths of
breadth of white supremacy as a contemporary, rather than historic, fact of
DS: On a philosophic level, do you find any criteria
as wholly objective, at least historically? Or, is it all a philosophic
exercise- i.e.- a single drop of objectivity objectifies a whole ocean’s worth
of subjectivity, the way a single drop of blood would literally make an ocean of
pure water impure? For example, there is the Hitler debate- was he an
unrepentant bigot (ala Mein Kampf)
or merely an opportunistic craver of power (as in Alan Bullock’s Hitler:
A Study In Tyranny)? How do you determine between such claims you
come across, and is that the way most historians do so?
PJ: Well in terms of objective criteria, we do have certain indisputable factual evidence regarding disasters, genocide, pogroms, riots, etc. But scholars always interpret these events based on their subjective points of view, so objectivity is a really complex ideal.
DS: Let’s turn to an area that has been a major
problem in fiction and history over the last decade: plagiarism.
In the last decade some historians, Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin
being the biggest names, have been proven to have plagiarized major portions of
books of theirs from many other historical works. The list of fiction writers is
even longer, and decades ago, even, Alex Haley, was guilty of plagiarizing a
novel for his supposed real life memoir, Roots. It seems that
Ambrose and Goodwin plagiarized to save time, because they became less about
being individuals than corporate ‘brands,’ with a desire to produce off the
rack works at a high speed. Ambrose seemed to be caught dead to rights, whereas
Goodwin seems to have fluffed notes because she relied on a staff of researchers
rather than doing her own research and writing- akin to old Master painters
whose works were sometimes painted by students under their name. First, how do
you avoid plagiarism? Is it ethics, or avoiding becoming a ‘brand’ and
losing your individuality, and becoming, like Goodwin (or
Michael Beschloss, David McCullough, Richard Norton Smith, or Robert Caro),
PJ: Well plagiarism can happen when scholars are not
careful with their research notes, which is accidental. The idea that someone
plagiarized to save time is egregious. I suppose the only way to prevent that is
to maintain your professional integrity, take careful notes to distinguish
between your words and that of others, attribute work that is not your own, and
produce at a pace that does not place you under undue pressure or stress.
DS: On a side note, one of the reasons I wanted to
interview you is that I find your views less predictable than the Grand Masters
of History mentioned above. Therefore, I think they are more vibrant and
relevant, as well as less ossified. Do you think ossification is a career hazard
PJ: That can be a hazard, but I am finding that over time, you experience new pleasures in reading, writing, teaching, and research. By delving deeper and backed by experience, you can try to get better in your work, expand your perspectives and world view, and take on risky and ambitious projects that you would not have been able to when your younger.
DS: To what degree have you seen plagiarism amongst
your peers? Do you regard it as a problem? After all, history is less a creative
work than a journalistic one. If you were plagiarized, would you sue, or be
flattered, as long as the proper recognition was finally granted?
PJ: I have not noted any
excessive amount of plagiarism, other than the occasional expose of certain
scholars we have heard about. If I were a victim of plagiarism I suppose I would
want correct attribution so that the record could be set straight.
DS: In this
sidebar to an article on plagiarism in Slate,
writer and editor David Plotz, posits a theory on the difference between writers
(especially historians) who make facts up and those who steal words: ‘There
is surprisingly little overlap between plagiarists and fabulists.
The New Republic’s fabulous
fabulist Stephen Glass didn’t plagiarize. Historian Joseph Ellis, who
concocted a fake Vietnam War record for himself, seems to do rock-solid
scholarship. Some pants-seat speculation why the two groups differ: Plagiarism
and fantasy stem from opposite psychopathologies.
Essentially, fabulists can’t find anything in the real
world that equals their imagination. That’s why they make things up, because
what they invent is more interesting than what they see around them.
Plagiarists, by contrast, find too
much in the real world that equals their imagination. They steal
because there is too much other writing around that tempts them—what they see
around them is more interesting than what they write themselves.’ Any
thoughts on Plotz’s claim?
insight that speaks for itself.
are blacks that try to parse a difference between bigotry and racism, claiming
that blacks cannot be racist since racism is a system of oppression. Yet,
Webster’s rents such a claim, but the claimants persist. How do you
distinguish between personal and systemic racism?
PJ: Well institutional racism subordinates groups based on race and can be seen in the over-representation of blacks in all negative social economic indicators, whether its mass incarceration, welfare and food stamps, unemployment, high rates of disease and infant mortality, illiteracy, homelessness, living in public housing projects, food insecurity, proximity to environmental hazards, low income, and an astonishing paucity of wealth.
Personal prejudice is more individualized and may impact someone in terms of social circles but does not have a systemic impact.
That being said, of course blacks can be racist. Historically, with the
exception of individuals such as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin who threw Asians
(Indians) out of his country, we have not seen it practiced by blacks on the
same level as South Africa or the United States.
DS: On a personal level, what term do you use when
referring to your own background- black, African-American, colored,
PJ: I prefer black because of its pan-ethnic
identification, meaning that it encompassed North America, the Caribbean,
Africa, and large parts of the world to include Haitians, Jamaicans, Nigerians,
as well as those of African descent from Cuba, Europe, and South America.
DS: What of diversity in
Academia, and the desire to expand canons of literature and art by rejecting old
standards- i.e.- positing some little known writer or painter from an ethnic
group is as good as a William Shakespeare or Pablo Picasso because the two named
artists get favored treatment for being white males? Yet, this leads to dumbed
down art, where a writer like a Jhumpa Lahiri can win a Pulitzer Prize, even
though her stories are just soap operas with Indian spice names in them (the
accoutrements of a culture sans any of the depth and reality). Or a Toni
Morrison winning a Nobel Prize while more deserving writers- such as a black
male like Charles Johnson- do
not get such an award, simply because whatever body decides it is time that some
token get awarded. Ideas?
PJ: Well I think that this is largely subjective and a matter of taste. I’ve enjoyed the limited amount that I have read of Jhumpa Lahiri and think that Morrison is an absolute literary genius. That being said, the Western canon is still shaped in large measure by a very European centered intellectual and literary aesthetic. So when writers of color, beyond a few that have been sanctioned by the literary establishment, gain notoriety it makes many feel uncomfortable.
Beyond the big iconic authors you mention, there are of course certain writers of color who may receive recognition despite their mediocre work, but even this is a kind of ironic progress since they join the innumerable number of white writers who have experience the same phenomenon for generations.
DS: What of the recent trend, in
books and film, to create counter-myths, such as the Mystical Negro (see The
Secret Lives Of Bees or any role acted by Morgan Freeman where he guides
the dumb whitey to higher spiritualism)? Is this not just a latter day version
of Rousseau’s Noble Savage?
PJ: I’m not familiar with that particular film, but I understand your point. Films like The Legend of Bagger Vance incorporate certain tropes that, while inclusive on the surface, do boil down blackness to a kind of spiritual essence that can save the soul of the more intellectual white character. Culturally, Hollywood still is mired in stereotyping (largely as criminals but sometimes as the Noble Savage) black life in ways that ignore its rich complexity.
DS: What are your thoughts on
ethnic holidays, or Black History Month, etc.? Does not this blur an
individual’s real accomplishments, especially if those accomplishments have
little to do with the group the individual belongs to? I ask because, some years
ago, I worked as a civil servant, and during Black History Month, the county I
worked for had some celebrations planned. One of its featured speakers was a
black man with a radio show, and this guy held Anti-Semitic views akin to those
of Louis Farrakhan, as well as his having lost his radio show for abusing drugs.
I thought he was a terrible role model to hold up for any children, especially
black kids, yet this PC mindset tainted the process. Had the man been white, as
example, they never would have invited him to speak with his documented
background in bigotry. The point is, while he has a right to air his noxious
views, I’m against a political organization aiding him. What are your thoughts
on these things, which occur many times over, both personally and legally?
PJ: I think that black holidays are
important and serve as a cultural reminder of the specific history of race in
America and the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the Middle Passage,
and colonialism and racism. I would
argue that most of these occasion are qualitatively different from what you may
have anecdotally witnessed and are filled with community organizers, activists,
elders, and young people offering up positive encouragement, sparking interest
in black history and culture, and trying to celebrate the struggle for black
freedom in America and around the world.
DS: On the other end of the spectrum there are
minorities who wallow in the worst aspects of their culture, and if criticized
for it, displayed in their art, they whine that the criticism is bigoted. As
example, I’ve ripped bad black poets like Maya
Angelou and Wanda
Coleman, and been called racist, even though my criticisms had nothing to do
with race, and I often pointed out example of the criticized using their own
racial stereotyping. Yet, I’ve also championed good and great black poets like
Robert Hayden, Thylias
Moss, and James Emanuel.
What do you think drives such- merely small egos and insecurities, and is there
really anything to remedy such ills? And when will such Boy Who Cried
Wolf nonsense end?
PJ: We must remember that much of the criticism of certain
black art has been racially motivated historically, which makes it a more
delicate exercise to excoriate certain art and artists. I have not read your
reviews of these poets so can not pass judgment, but black poetry, literature,
fiction, etc still finds it difficult to receive a fair hearing among mainstream
DS: Any broader ideas on Political Correctness and
PJ: Both are coming out of the culture wars and social
movement struggles of the 1960s. The former is really an invention of the right,
now bandied about by the left as well, for their inability after the heroic
period of the civil rights struggles and the Black Power era to practice overt
racism and sexism in the Southern Dixiecratic manner of a George Wallace.
The latter has been championed by liberals and is in theory very
important, but is usually watered down in a manner that reproduces the fiction
that America in a melting pot, when historically different racial and ethnic
groups have actually been thrust in a violent zero sum game over resources, with
blacks competing with two hands tied behind their backs due to slavery and over
one hundred years of Jim Crow.
DS: What are your opinions on such things as invented
traditions in the black community- such as Kwanzaa? I mentioned Alex Haley, and
when Roots (the book and the television miniseries) were big, in
the late 1970s, I recall many black families took on Black Identity traits, such
as proclaiming the ‘We’re all descended from kings’
nonsense, and the trend of naming children with faux African names or exotic
spellings of old names (there aren’t many LaToyas running about the veldts and
jungles of Africa). Do you think these things have been deleterious, especially
the notion of privilege in the royal descent claim? After all, most of the folks
that made the Middle Passage were just the African equivalents of bootblacks or
PJ: Invented traditions transcend race and ethnicity and
are part of the process of America’s immigrant roots. African centered cultural traditions such as Kwanzaa are
healthy as long as young people are being told a complex and historically
accurate vision of the past, which means that while some may be descended from
royalty, many come from less esteemed but no less important stock.
DS: When I interviewed Charles
Johnson, I asked him this query: ‘The Du Bois quote and mention
also put me thinking about modern rap music, and its effect on kids (of all
races), as well as the sort of empowerment some try to use art for. It reminds
me of blacks who try to bolster a young child’s ego by telling him/her that
they ‘were descended from kings,’ as a counter to the debilitating effects
of slavery and persistent racism today. This goes back to the ‘all art is
political’ canard, but where do you stand, politically- as man/artist, on the
role of the past on individuals? And is my asking such a thing falling into the
trap you later mention in the book- assuming your expertise on race relations
for your blackness? After all, as a white man, I’ve heard things white folks
say behind the backs of blacks that you can only speculate on, so while you (as
a black man) may be expert on the effects of bigotry, I surely am far more
expert on its causes and extent; at least the American black-white form of
bigotry. Neither of us is likely qualified to speak on native bigotry in
Madagascar, for instance.’ Johnson disagreed, and replied, ‘Actually,
I must disagree with your statement that what you’ve heard in only non-black
company is equivalent to my knowledge of race. Yes, I have 59 years of personal
racial experiences, as you no doubt have years of the same. But as a scholar,
I’ve devoted myself since I was an undergraduate discussion group leader for
the first big lecture course on Black American History at Southern Illinois
University in 1969 (when Black Studies courses began there) to the systematic
study of black American history, culture, and thought since the year 1619 when
the first 20 Africans became indentured servants (and later bought their
freedom) at the Jamestown colony. (Interestingly enough, one of them took the
name “Johnson”.) As you said, I can’t speak about bigotry in Madagascar,
because unlike my research in black American history, I’ve not studied that
for a lifetime, as I’ve done with the history of my own people.’
However, I think he missed my point, that blacks often assume they know whites
and their motives better than whites do. To me, this is as silly as the reverse,
when white sociologists tried to construe all sorts of claims into black
behavior. So, would you agree with my posit that, ‘as a white man,
I’ve heard things white folks say behind the backs of blacks that you can only
speculate on, so while you (as a black man) may be expert on the effects of
bigotry, I surely am far more expert on its causes and extent; at least the
American black-white form of bigotry.’?
PJ: I agree with Johnson here. W.E.B. Du Bois’ The
Souls of Black Folk and the works of Langston Hughes and James Baldwin are
crucial here. Historically, since they were subordinated first under slavery and
then during the long century of Jim Crow, blacks have been experts on the white
mind, attitude, and psychology. The
work of Lawrence Levine, Ira Berlin, John Blassingame, Sterling Stuckey, and
others on slavery is very important here as well.
Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s notion of “wearing a mask” and Du Bois’
notion of the “veil” were more than just brilliant literary conceits, they
were survival tools. Blacks became experts in dissembling (even when plotting
slave revolts), practicing proper racial etiquette around whites, and employing
tactics that let them know the white mood in a manner that is profoundly
DS: Also in the Johnson interview, I mentioned the
tendency of whites to assume any black person having expertise on race (similar
to ‘all brothers bein’ down w’each other’), and he wrote
of this as sort of a black self-segregation of intellectual pursuit in his
essay, The Role Of The Black Intellectual In The Twenty-First Century.
Do you still encounter this sort of attitude, to this day- on campus or off?
PJ: Since I’m a history professor, many people assume
that I do study race, even before finding out my area of expertise.
So in that way, I think aspects of this attitude linger.
DS: I mentioned Robert Moses and the federal
government intervention of the mid-Twentieth Century, wherein ghettos were
created by destroying vital neighborhoods- i.e.- the lack of good jobs,
supermarkets, and outrageously high gas prices. Yet, if one just looks at the
World Bank example of fighting poverty abroad, their greatest success come not
from trying to legislate civil behaviors, but by giving money directly to the
poor to start business, and empower the poor that way, by cutting out the
middlemen. Yet, in this country, that has rarely been tried, instead trying
welfare alone, which led to a cycle of dependence. My belief is that, contra to
their claims, many whites wanted this, so that blacks could not economically
compete via businesses. Do you
agree with this, and do you favor such ‘bottom up’ seeding of economies as
has been successful with the World Bank?
PJ: My favorite approach would be guaranteed jobs for those
willing to work, which I feel would be an extraordinary large number of the
unemployed. A positive work life impacts family life, which is the best
predictor for education success and neighborhood revitalization. On this score
the federal government needs to reignite the WPA started under Roosevelt, to
rebuild infrastructure, spark new energy initiatives, and aid our population of
children and elderly.
DS: What of a WPA-like approach to solving racialized
poverty? My dad, born in 1916, served in the CC Camps in the Great Depression,
and told me that many of the camps that he served in, out West- in Washington
state and Idaho, were integrated. There seem to be so many positives from such
approaches, so why are not these things tried out? One could calibrate a system,
especially for young folk, and have them serve summers for their country- from
12-19, and give college scholarships based upon school grades and number of
summers in national service- 1 to 8. Ideas?
PJ: Ha! Just spoke of the WPA without seeing this question.
I am all for it, the idea about young people seems especially promising.
DS: Do you view religious morality (that imposed from
without) as different from secular ethics (that immanent), which is based on
deeper, common human values? And where do legal ethics fit on this spectrum?
After all, some moralities justify the killing of infidels, but no ethics do.
PJ: I think that there are convergences, but certainly
everyone should be guided by an ethical and moral compass.
DS: A year or so ago I had to take a copier to a
repair place, and when I picked it up, the repairman, who was black and 60ish,
seemed, at first, surprised when I extended my hand in thanks for his fixing the
machine, and then happy. I could tell that it was more than a customer not being
rude, and that there was some deeper sense of his self that simply did not
expect such literal person to person niceties from a white man. Do you still
find such attitudes of deference or resignation to white bigotry from older
black folk you know?
PJ: Yes. Those raised in the Jim Crow era, both North and
South, do not expect courtesies from whites because they rarely experienced
them. This is why so many were absolutely shocked by Obama’s election.
DS: A few years back I co-hosted an Internet radio show
On one show we spoke with a poet named Fred Glaysher, who- in arguing with my
co-host Art Durkee, claimed that, in art, change does not come until some giant-
or great artist, comes along, and buries the rest of the wannabes. It’s akin
to Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions. Is the
same true in history?
PJ: No. I believe that it depends on one where looks.
Certainly there are big, defining books, whether on the American Revolution,
Civil War, Slavery, Civil Rights, etc. But the changes in history usually occur
through a series of case studies and monographs that are taking specific fields
in new directions. Then, we may get a very well known scholar and good writer
who synthesizes these works for a popular and scholarly audience that makes
people take note.
DS: I started these interviews because so many
interviews, online and in print, are atrocious. They are merely vehicles
designed to pimp a book or other product- film, CD, etc. One of the things
I’ve tried to do with these interviews is avoid the canned sort of responses
that most interviews- print or videotaped, indulge in, yet most people find
comfort in hearing the expected. Why are the readers and the interviews so
banal? Where have all the great interviewers like a Phil Donahue, Dick Cavett,
David Susskind, or Bill Buckley gone? Only Charlie
Rose, on PBS, is left.
PJ: We have lost the art of long form interview pioneered
by the folks you mentioned above but a list that includes David Frost, Bill
Noble of the WABC black current affairs program “Like It Is,” Tony Brown, of
Tony Brown’s Journal, and many more. As
I discussed earlier, this kind of interview requires a different type of
intellectual culture, one that is declining in our current society. The long
book review, the idea that intellectuals had something to share with a mass
public used to be taken for granted (remember Marshall McLuhan’s hilarious
appearance in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall?) but is now forgotten. It’s a real
shame because this used to extend toward political leaders. Malcolm X could sit
down with Mike Wallace and Chicago’s Irv Kupnicet. Stokely Carmichael spoke to
Dick Cavett and Mike Douglass and on Face the Nation and Meet the Press. Huey P.
Newton conducted an extraordinary interview with Bill Buckley and Martin Luther
King spoke to everyone. These
conversations broadened the public mind and the nation’s political imagination
in a way that is sorely needed now.
years ago, my wife and I were in the resort town of Stillwater, Minnesota,
and there was some Buddhist monk convention there. It was odd, in this
lily-white town, to see a bunch of barefoot bald Oriental men in flaming red and
pink robes, walking around. But, as my wife and a friend of hers, who was with
us, went off, I sat on a bench in a store, where three monks came in. The
youngest was the only one who spoke English, and in the course of our
conversation, it became apparent that monkdom was merely a family business
he’d given no serious thought to. When we parted I think I left him in an
existential quandary; one I’ve often wondered the result of. Is this not a
pitfall an insular life- be it based on religion or ethnic apartheid? Do too
many people simply go with the flow, in accepting whatever roles others have
cast for them? And, how does one go about countering such?
PJ: The more diverse one’s experience is, the better
opportunity to live a more fully examined, even daring life. This goes for race,
geography, ethnicity, and class and gender backgrounds.
DS: What do you feel about online websites that may post
inaccurate scientific or historical, or even
libelous material. Most (in)famously there was the Wikipedia
incident with John
Siegenthaler, wherein fallacious claims were made of the man, tying him to
JFK’s assassination. Wikipedia seems to be the chief purveyor of this brand of
Internet sciolism. Do you think that excesses like the Siegenthaler incident
presage possible libel litigations that will shut down such anonymous sites like
Wikipedia? And, would this actually be a good thing, one that civilizes the Wild
West atmosphere online? Have you ever found yourself or your works/views
misrepresented online? If so, how did you handle things?
PJ: It is part of our contemporary culture. My own work at
times has been misrepresented, but more often accurately depicted.
DS: I’ve often argued vociferously against the notion
that ‘art is truth,’ but journalism, science, and history are
or should be about the search for truth. Do you agree? If so, what truths
have you encountered in history that debunked some well held fallacies you had?
What was it like to have to let go of your presuppositions?
PJ: Historically, in contrast to my feelings as a child, I was surprised at how consisted resistance to racial oppression in the United States has been. In college history classes I would ask professors about slavery in the age of freedom and what were the Founding Fathers thinking? They would reply that not everyone thought slavery was bad, which turned out to not be true. Blacks, at times with white allies, have been fighting white supremacy since the nation’s birthplace.
Letting go of my presuppositions here have been very beneficial in the
sense that as a historian I am more aware that resistance is not always well
documented in the historical record. The civil rights movement is more than just
Martin Luther King just like Black Power transcends Malcolm X and Stokely
Carmichael. Ordinary people make history alongside history’s iconic Great
Women and Men.
DS: There is an idea called Hanlon’s Razor, which
states, ‘Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately
explained by stupidity.’ There is also Occam’s Razor, which
states that ‘The simplest explanation, which best fits the known facts,
is usually the correct one.’ Are these the sorts of apothegms that you
keep in mind when evaluating history? After all, despite hoping for objectivity
in history, the fact is that you are a human being, laced with flaws and biases
of your own. If not these, what are some guiding principles when you evaluate
history and draw conclusions? Have you ever had to change principles? If not,
can you foresee a time when personal or intellectual growth might cause you to
re-evaluate prior claims and/or conclusions you’ve made? Has that already
occurred? If so, what was it, and what prompted the re-evaluation?
PJ: As a historian you must follow the evidence. The tricky
part is amassing as much as possible from multiple sources and perspectives. If
you do this I think you have a better chance of distinguishing between accidents
of history and events motivated by larger social, political, economic, and
DS: In the 2008 Presidential election you seemed to
always be on television for PBS’s coverage. How did you land that gig, and is
‘professional talking head’ headed for you c.v? Also, media mogul Tavis
Smiley has claimed that he has been the token black on talking head panels
before- were you the token for PBS? If so, did it matter, as long as it helped
PJ: PBS called me and asked if I
would like to appear and the rest is history.
I enjoy the opportunity to reach a wider audience that television
provides, especially since I think the point of view that I bring is often
missing from these discussions. I did not feel like a token at PBS, but realize
that the rise of Barack Obama during the 2008 campaign inspired many media
outlets to re-evaluate their on-camera news teams, political experts, and
pundits, a process that created space for people like me.
DS: Let me close this interview with a few final
questions. Has race (i.e.- your being black) been a help or hindrance in your
career, or in the publication of this book? Or a wash? What does that say, pro
or con? Or did being a professor balance out whatever negatives the color of
your skin bore?
PJ: I think that the
academy is a tough gig in general, and especially difficult if your black and
not from the Ivy League or a prestigious university. Add to that my interest in
Black Power and it has not been an easy rode despite some of the success that I
have been fortunate enough to experience. My
first book did not initially attract much interest from publishers, both due to
the topic and my being a first time author.
The extraordinary poet and human rights activist, Sonia Sanchez, has been
a mentor to me since my graduate school days at Temple University helped me keep
the faith and secure a book contract. My
Haitian mother, Germaine Joseph, is the most strong-willed, disciplined, and
compassionate person I know. That fortitude helped me stay the course throughout
my academic career. I have also
been fortunate enough to have numerous mentors, including the late Columbia
University historian and Malcolm X biographer Manning Marable, who encouraged my
progress along the way.
DS: How will you avoid ghettoizing yourself as Black
Historian? Will you branch out and write books on China, Inuits,
or Argentina? Or do you currently consider yourself just a historian, period?
PJ: I consider myself a historian and am proud to also be
considered a black historian. My interests in race and democracy, black
radicalism, intellectual history, popular culture, the American presidency, and
other topics are both rooted in race and connected to wider social, political,
historical, and cultural forces that I think are of interest to broad audiences.
DS: At this point in your life, have you accomplished
the things you wanted to do? If not, what failures gnaw at you the most? Which
of those failures do you think you can accomplish yet?
PJ: Interesting question. I would not call it a failure,
but I still want to help complicate popular conceptions of Black Power and
figures such as Stokely Carmichael to the general public. My work has
contributed to this conversation and I would like an opportunity to impact the
way in which Black Power is taught and memorialized in broader and deeper ways.
DS: By the time this interview runs, President Obama
will be well in to his first term. What things about the man, his policies, and
place in history, can you divine already- pro or con? What things has he done
that you did not foresee? What has been his best success and worst failure, so
far? And do you think Obama’s election was just ‘the man meets his
moment’? I.e.- do you think it augurs the permanent ascent of minorities and
women onto the national political stage, as contenders for the Presidency, or
was Obama just that one in a million fluke?
PJ: Almost three years into his administration, I think that Obama’s policies have not been as bold as most of his supporters would have liked. In essence his economic stimulus, bailouts, and healthcare policy (although enormous when considering the past fifty years of presidential history) failed to fundamentally re-imagine the social contract between government and citizens, the very reason he was elected so decisively. For blacks his presidency has been especially confounding. He enjoys high approval rating despite the enormous levels of unemployment, incarceration, and overall misery that pervade broad swaths of the black community. This is due both to pride in his election but also a response to the vicious, at times racially charged, anti-Obama criticism from the right win, Tea Party, and a wide range of conservatives. Obama’s inability to articulate a new vision for America and the government’s role in that vision has been a fundamental mistake, allowing his critics to recklessly write a counter-narrative that culminated in the debt ceiling debacle that has tied fiscal policy for the next two years.
Whether or not Obama will be a fluke depends on what vision of America
succeeds over the next few years, that articulated by progressives who supported
the president in 2008 with hope for more economic, social, and racial justice or
a Tea Party driven Republican Party that has ignored the very idea of
bi-partisanship in favor of ugly rhetoric, brinkmanship, and economic disaster.
DS: What is in store, in the next year or two, in
terms of books and your work? Are you still working on a
biography of Black Power advocate Stokely Carmichael?
PJ: Yes. Stokely Carmichael: A Biography is making progress and will be published by Basic Books hopefully in the next two years.
DS: Thanks for doing this interview, Peniel Joseph, and
let me allow you a closing statement, on whatever you like.
PJ: This is the most intense long form interview that I have ever done. Kudos to you for taking the time to do this and while we may disagree on certain topics and historical interpretations, its important to have this kind of sustained dialogue among intellectuals, scholars, writers, and artists.
Ultimately, I hope that my work on Black Power, Stokely Carmichael, civil rights, and race and democracy contributes to a larger national dialogue on race relation and racial justice in America that is long overdue, in spite of the election of the nation’s first black president.
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